The incident of September 27, 2014 has been described as a black cloud over the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League. A shocking event that lit up the channels of communication in the field hockey community like never before. A scandal for the League and a source of shame for my field hockey club. The outcome was an investigation to which only one side was invited, a harsh rebuke and a grave threat about future “misconduct”.
So what actually happened that day?
A few years ago, my wife and I decided that we would no longer play field hockey in a skirt. We were adults, we were playing in a beer league and we decided that it was time to openly reject the outdated and discriminatory beliefs about women’s sports that the skirt represents. So we went out and we bought shorts the same colour and approximately the same length as our teammates’ skirts. For while, we played without incident. And then September 27, 2014 happened.
On that day, my wife and I took the field in our shorts, as had become our custom. And at first, the game proceeded like any other. At some point in the first half of the game, one of the referees noticed that I was wearing shorts. When she asked me why, I told her it was an ideological choice.
At halftime, the referee spoke to my team captain and told her that she would have to make a notation on our game card that two of our players were out of uniform. This had happened before and so my captain agreed. However, after speaking to the mother of one of the opposing players, the referee changed her mind and decided that the penalty should be much harsher. She told my captain that no player wearing shorts would be allowed back on the field.
This caught me and my team off-guard. Being thrown out of the game is a pretty extreme penalty for a uniform infraction in a recreational league. Uniform infractions, after all, are very common. Players often don’t have the right colour socks or skirts, sometimes players wear glasses or hats, and in winter almost all of us wear leggings and shirts in various colours to stay warm. None of us had ever heard of such a serious penalty for such a minor infraction. In fact, in my seven years of playing in this league, I have never seen such a serious penalty for any infraction.
On top of everything, this penalty would have left our team short-handed. It was a call that likely would have cost us the game.
As a team, and under our coach’s direction, we decided to take the field. All of us.
As centre-forward, I stepped up to ball to wait for the referee’s whistle. As I did, the referee told me that she would not start the game until I left the field. I told her politely that I would wait. And so that is what we did.
After a few minutes, the referee told us she was calling the game and that my team would forfeit. One of my teammates who had found the league constitution on her phone approached the referee and calmly advised her that the constitution did not provide for such a penalty. She told her that we have played in shorts for a long time and we had never been told that we might face such punishment. The referee told my teammate that she would discuss the matter with the other official. My teammate thanked her and then left her to confer.
The referee ultimately decided to let us play with the issue to be referred later to the Games Committee. In the end, the game was a tie. We shook hands with the other team and my captain apologized to the referee so there would be no hard feelings.
At no point in the game did anyone raise their voice, utter expletives or speak to the referee in anger. All my teammates and I did was express our disagreement with the skirt requirement and the unduly harsh penalty through respectful dialogue and peaceful resistance. We are a team of professional women after all and field hockey is something we do for fun.
Ironically, there were other uniform infractions on the field that day that went unnoticed by the officials. One player on the other team was playing in eyeglasses. Unlike the skirt requirement, the prohibition on eyeglasses has a fairly rational purpose. It is to prevent glass from shattering into a player’s eyes if hit by a ball. The player with the eyeglasses actually did get hit in the face that game. But the referees said nothing. It was at that moment that I knew the referee’s reaction was not about my compliance with the strict letter of the constitution. It was about my rejection of the belief system represented by the skirt. It was about a woman stepping out of line.
Any hope that I had that this would blow over and my wife and I could continue playing the sport we love without incident was shattered on the evening of October 2, 2014.
At 11pm that night, the women’s captain of my field hockey club forwarded to my whole team an email from the league president. Apparently, a complaint had been filed with the Games Committee about the incident of September 27, 2014. The Games Committee, made up of representatives of each field hockey club, deliberated on my team’s fate without ever giving us an opportunity to present our side of the dispute. It was recommended that our “poor conduct” on September 27, 2014 be punished with two of the harshest penalties available in this league: a red card for our captain with a suspension and fine and a forfeit of the last game for our team.
The league executive decided that this time we would be given a formal warning, but that stepping out of line again would not be tolerated.
In her email to our team captain, the league president, who herself was not present on September 27, said the following:
Now that the reports have been reviewed by both the Games Committee and the League Executive, I am writing to inform you that this kind of blatant disregard for the league constitution and total disrespect of the officials will absolutely not be tolerated. …
[The umpires] are there to uphold the rules of the league, FIH and FHBC and they are able to card a player who deliberately breaks any of these rules and are certainly permitted to red card any player who intentionally misbehaves in a serious manner towards another player, umpire or other match official.
The league will not allow umpires to be subjected to the abuse, harassment and aggressive behaviour as was witnessed last weekend and you were all very fortunate not to have been given red cards there and then. Should you or your team mates repeat this type of behaviour, red cards, along with the game suspensions and fines that accompany them, will be issued.
A few days later, at our next game, the president of my club took it upon himself to wade into the dispute. Without the permission of my coach, he decided that it would be appropriate to deliver a speech at halftime about how ashamed we should be of ourselves. This man has never known what it is like to be a victim of sexploitation. He has never had to choose between a sport he loves and his principles. He has no idea what it is like being a woman in sports. And yet here he was speaking to a group of professional women about how we had humiliated our club and tarnished its good name and how we best do everything in our power to repair the damage we had done. He told us that our conduct was inexcusable and shameful.
He didn’t have time to finish his speech at halftime so he came back at our next practice to finish putting us in our place. When my teammate asked him what he had done as our representative to investigate the false allegations against us, he told us that it wasn’t his place to get involved.
Feeling a little confused? You are not alone.
My teammates and I racked our brains trying to remember what conduct on our part could be characterized as abusive, aggressive or harassing. We came up with nothing. We simply could not reconcile our collective recollection of the game with the conduct that had been ascribed to us.
My teammates and I are not thugs. We are professional women in our mid-twenties to early fifties. We are nurses, pharmacists, accountants, lawyers, paramedics and scientists. Some of us are even mothers.
The only thing we could come up with is that our rejection of the antiquated skirt rule was so offensive that any dialogue, no matter how respectful, was perceived as a threat.
Of course, it doesn’t matter anyway, because no one in the League or even in our own club seems to care about what actually happened. It seems that everyone is content to perpetuate the rumours and misrepresentations that have been flying around the field hockey community. Content to attack the character of professional women who have to work and live in this city.
The Silver Lining
At a personal level, this controversy has taken its toll. In the last two weeks I have felt more sadness, outrage and disbelief than I usually feel in a year. I have been blown away by how strongly people feel about what I put on my body. I have even contemplated leaving this sport altogether.
But it has not been all bad. I have also felt tremendous gratitude towards my teammates and coach who continue to stand beside me in this struggle. I have seen firsthand how strong, brave, insightful and passionate my teammates are, and it makes me hopeful for the future. My team is my silver lining.
Buoyed by our teammates’ support and kind words, my wife and I decided that we will not be leaving field hockey. But neither will we give up the fight.
The League has taken away our voice on the field, but they can’t take away our freedom off of it. It is our hope that we will be able to use this ugliness as an opportunity to make real, meaningful change. Not with anger or violence but with hope and principles and determination. The first step is raising awareness so please share our story with anyone who will listen. And if this is an issue you care about, please contact me. This is not over. We look forward to hearing from you.